Bitter substances and their health benefits

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A bitter disappointment or the bitter end – both in linguistic and in culi­nary terms, we associate a bitter taste with something negative. How wrong we are! The truth is, bitter substances get our digestive system moving.

Why are bitter substances so healthy?

Bitter substances are so healthy mainly because they stimulate the entire gastrointestinal tract. They boost the production of saliva as well as digestive juices in the stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas and intestines. This explains why bitter substances are good for us and revitalise our body. In addition, bitter substances can have an anti-inflammatory, detoxifying, antioxidant and antispasmodic effect.

Effects of bitter substances at a glance:

  • Bitter substances stimulate digestion. This is especially good before and after fatty and heavy meals.
  • Bitter substances can help with complaints such as flatulence, constipation, heartburn (or stomach burn) or chronic intestinal disorders.
  • Bitter substances can curb appetite and help with weight loss.
  • Bitter substances can keep ravenous hunger attacks in check by releasing a hormone that signals the brain to stop eating.
  • When applied externally, bitter substances can have an anti-inflammatory effect and be used for acne and neurodermatitis.

Which foods contain bitter substances?

Bitter substances can be found in many foods, from kale and the common daisy to special Italian radicchio varieties. To gradually accustom your palate to bitter tastes, a slightly bitter note can be introduced into meals with mustard in salad dressings, Romaine lettuce salads, and also olive oil and sesame paste. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, radish, cress, wild rocket and artichoke have a stronger bitter taste. For seriously bitter, look to chicory salads and wild herbs.

Foods with healthy bitter compounds

From slightly bitter to exceedingly bitter in ascending order:

  • lettuce salads such as garden lettuce, iceberg lettuce, Batavia lettuce, lollo rosso and bionda
  • herbs such as sage, rosemary, mint, oregano and thyme
  • sesame paste
  • olives and olive oil
  • white radish, horseradish, wasabi and radishes
  • garden cress, watercress, nasturtium
  • wild rocket
  • artichokes
  • black and white mustard
  • citrus fruits such as grapefruit, bitter orange and the lesser known cedro (citron)
  • varieties of cabbage such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale, pak choi, Chinese cabbage, cima di rapa
  • chicory salads such as radicchio, chicory endive
  • wild plants such as dandelion, daisy, yarrow, mugwort, garlic mustard

Wild vegetables and wild herbs

Over the last centuries, there has been a tendency for farmers – and now increasingly the food industry too – to cultivate vegetable and even fruit varieties with less and less of a bitter taste. After all, sweet sells better than bitter. For this reason, wild vegetables and wild herbs are the better choice. They not only contain more bitter substances, but also vitamins, minerals and secondary plant substances, and they taste aromatic too.

Bitter drinks

Bitter substances can also be found in beer and in wine. Then there are alcoholic bitters that are served as an aperitif or digestif. However, while the bitter substances have a beneficial effect, this is counteracted by the health-detrimental effect of alcohol. For this reason, other drinks such as teas, juices, smoothies and coffee are recommended, with green tea rated as particularly healthy.

And why are children not keen on bitter tastes?

There are few children who willingly eat Brussels sprouts. This can be explained in 2 ways:

  1. Children taste more
    We have taste buds located on the back of our tongue and also on our palate. While babies have up to 10,000 taste buds, the elderly only have around 4,000. In other words, our sense of taste declines over the years. We therefore experience bitter tastes more intensively at a young age than in adulthood. In addition, our sense of taste develops over time and becomes accustomed to all kinds of taste nuances, including bitter.
  2. Our instinct warns us against bitter tastes
    A bitter taste instinctively makes us recoil at first. This is because evolution has led us to store the bitter taste in our brain as a sign of unripe, spoiled or even poisonous food. By nature, we therefore tend towards sweet, salty or umami tastes that promise our bodies the carbohydrates, minerals and animal and vegetable proteins that are essential for survival. The food industry takes advantage of this instinctive bodily reaction. Processed foods, in particular, contain large amounts of sugar and salt. Few are sour, hardly any are bitter.
Spicy is not a taste, but is caused by our body reacting to pain.

Bitterness score

Bitter tastes cannot be measured objectively, as each person perceives tastes differently. However, pharmaceutical scientists determine bitterness levels with a bitterness scale. The scale begins with the just perceptible bitter taste of an ingredient of cinchona bark. The most bitter natural substance in the world is called amarogentin. It is found in some species of gentian and has a bitterness score of 58,000,000.


Sources (in german):

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